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The Three Tests for This Year’s Appropriations

It’s not even May but, believe it or not, it’s time to talk about appropriations.

[IMGCAP(1)]This may be something of a shock to anyone who has watched, analyzed or participated in the budget process over the past decade. In many of those years, Congress either didn’t try or completely failed to put a budget resolution in place and so had to jerry-rig the process to debate appropriations without violating the law.

This year, however, the relatively breakneck speed at which the budget resolution is being adopted will clear the way for floor consideration of the fiscal 2010 spending bills. That means the appropriations are very likely to start to be considered far earlier than has been the case in recent years.

And make no mistake about it, the fiscal 2010 budget resolution is being agreed to quickly. Although it was not adopted by the April 15 deadline, the fact that it is likely to be put in place even close to that date is remarkable given that a transition occurred this year and, as is typical in years when that happens, the president’s budget was released weeks after the first-Monday-in-February deadline.

This Congress also deserves credit for moving ahead with the budget resolution instead of doing what almost every Congress does: wait for the details of the president’s budget to be released. Even the newly elected Republican majority in 1995, which, led by House Budget Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), said publicly that Bill Clinton’s not-yet-released fiscal 1996 budget would be irrelevant and would be ignored, still waited for the president’s proposal to be submitted before seriously beginning to deliberate that year’s budget resolution.

With the resolution out of the way, most of what’s left of this year’s budget process will be devoted to the fiscal 2010 appropriations. This is especially the case because reconciliation, the other part of the budget process that could have taken up a great deal of time and political energy between now and the start of the fiscal year, apparently will have an Oct. 15 deadline. That will allow much of the work on reconciliation to take place after the fiscal year begins.

There are three tests by which this year’s appropriations process should be judged.

The first, most obvious and most important test will be whether Congress keeps the spending to the levels assumed in the budget resolution.

There is, however, an interesting wrinkle this year. Federal spending is considered to be an important part of the economic recovery effort that is projected to be needed through at least the last quarter of calendar year 2009. That is also the first quarter of fiscal 2010, so spending levels may have to be adjusted up or down depending on the recovery. If the economy is performing better than expected, it may make some sense to reduce federal spending somewhat, and the appropriations may be the easiest way to make that happen this fall. If the economy is not doing as well as projected, some additional stimulus could be needed and, once again, appropriations may be the proper legislative vehicles.

The second test will be the ability of Congress to enact the 2010 appropriations bills by the start of the fiscal year.

In fact, there will be few acceptable excuses this year if most of the appropriations are not in place by Oct. 1 because almost all of the factors will be missing that in previous years delayed or stopped appropriations dead in their tracks.

As noted above, the first of these — the budget resolution conference report being adopted late and, therefore, preventing appropriations from being considered — absolutely looks like it won’t be an issue this year. Congress will also have more time to consider this year’s appropriations bills because this is not an election year and there will be far more time available in the House and Senate for debates and votes. Although there aren’t enough Democrats to automatically stop a filibuster in the Senate, the comparatively large majorities in both chambers should also make it somewhat easier to pass the bills on time.

There is also an additional factor this year that hasn’t existed before: Federal spending in the current economic environment is considered acceptable. That may make it easier for some to vote for the appropriations than has been the case in the past.

The third test for this year’s appropriations will be earmarks.

As I’ve noted before, it’s not worth the time it takes to debate earmarks because their impact on the budget is so small. In addition, not only do most voters like the federal dollars their Senator or Representative bring home every year, they’re disappointed when he or she doesn’t do it.

Nevertheless, earmarks will be a test for this year’s appropriations because Congress and the White House made it clear they would be. This happened during the presidential campaign when Barack Obama spoke out against earmarks. It also occurred when the fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations bill was adopted earlier this year because the leadership and Obama administration said the earmarks in the bill were holdovers from the last year of the Bush administration. They said the 2010 appropriations, the first considered after the new president was sworn in to office, would be different.

That makes it hard not to include earmarks as one of the ways by which this year’s appropriations process should be judged. The only question is whether the test should be whether there are any earmarks at all, or whether a process that includes increased transparency about which representatives sponsored them at whose request will be enough to make them politically acceptable.

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.— His blog is Capital Gains and Games.

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